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Romancing H’wood

Helmer looks for love on '20 Dates'

If you’re going to film in well-known locations all over L.A. and have little or no location budget, it helps to have an engaging premise. At least that’s what Myles Berkowitz found when he wanted to shoot his first feature, “20 Dates,” in place such as Gladstone’s 4 Fish and the late Mezzaluna. Berkowitz plays himself — a luckless bachelor who sets up 20 dates to find the right woman.

Dragging his two-person guerrilla crew around to many of the city’s trendier watering holes, Berkowitz was stunned by the warmth with which his little film was received.

“L.A. has a lot of people running around town with cameras,” Berkowitz chuckles. “So the local businesses are pretty jaded to the whole indie film thing. But once I explained to them what my movie was about — my going on 20 dates in search of true love — they invariably welcomed us in. The dirty little secret about Los Angeles is that there are a helluva lot more hopeless romantics here than anyone wants to admit.”

The warmth must have rubbed off on distributors, too, since the film went on to be picked up by Fox Searchlight after showing in the renegade Slamdance Festival. While Park City, Utah, can be a minefield for inexperienced filmmakers, Berkowitz tried not to make the common mistakes made by first-timers. Although the film was not accepted to Sundance, he hired publicists and made sure the word got out about his Slamdance screenings.

Berkowitz, a New York-born writer-actor, caught the interest of acquisition execs at the festival by blanketing the town with postcards, tipping cabbies handsomely to chat up his film and buying out the opening-night showing. A glowing review in Daily Variety certainly helped the cause as well. It all paid off when Fox Searchlight VP Joe Picarello showed up at a screening.

Another departure from conventional first-timer protocol was that Berkowitz didn’t finance the whole production with his Visa card or his parents. Instead, he convinced producer/distributor Elie Samaha to foot the modest budget.

Samaha was sure that with a romantic comedy, he could recoup the investment by selling domestic rights and a few foreign territories. Berkowitz shot the feature on video, using real dates, not actresses — thus irrevocably blurring the line between reality and fiction.

But should anybody really care if “20 Dates” is real or not?

None of the films Berkowitz’s entertaining first feature borrows from — “This Is Spinal Tap”, “Man Bites Dog,” “Roger & Me” — were strictly “real.”

“My film is a romantic comedy,” Berkowitz says. “It is not a documentary in any sense of the word. But, regardless of whether you think you’re watching reality or fiction, the film hits on some key insights into why dating in Los Angeles is so much different than anywhere else.”

In one amusing bit, the filmmaker has his friends address the camera, explaining why L.A. is verboten territory for the lovelorn, regardless of gender, age or degree of cosmetic surgery.

“I feel like a tiny cinder in hell,” describes one grinning female pal not far from Venice Beach. “I’m slowly burning up in flames in this huge, terrible, evil place.”

“I actually set out to make this mean little comedy about dating,” Berkowitz laughs. “But, after I met Elizabeth and fell in love, this mushy-cute romance started to take over. And, believe me, I’m the last guy who would have thought he could make a cute film.”

The “Elizabeth” Berkowitz refers to — according to the filmmaker — is the one plot twist in the movie that is absolutely real. As “20 Dates’ ” narrator, director, protagonist and romantic guinea pig soon found out, his dream girl, Elizabeth, had something in common with the filmmaker’s adopted home of L.A. — a big, generous heart.

And it wasn’t just his romance that had a happy ending. Fox Searchlight had the picture transferred to film by Four Media and has skedded a February release. Time enough to print new postcards and start prepping the cabbies.

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